“Trade Unionism As I Understand It” by Joseph Labadie

Trades unionism as I understand it is a co-operative effort on the part of wage earners to better their economic conditions in a special way. It is one of the many ways pointed out by social and political economists for the betterment of the race. It is not its province to attempt to do everything that is good, any more than should one person attempt to do all the things that it is possible for one man to do. We have learned by experience that it is more economical, more effective, for each person to do one particular thing than it is for each person to do everything that is necessary to be done, if that were not possible. There was a time when almost every person was Jack of all trades and master of none, but that time has long since gone by. The division of labor has made it possible for one person to be master of one trade, or at least one branch of a trade, and the result is that the productivity of labor has increased to a wonderful degree. This specializing of efforts has taken place in almost every avenue of life, and so far has been one of the greatest actors in progress and civilization.

There is a tendency among trades unionists to fly in the face of this law of progress, and to have the trades unions take upon themselves multitudinous functions. It seems to me that a trade union should confine its efforts strictly to those things that are peculiar to the trade of which the union is formed…The failure of the K. of L. {Knights of Labor] to succeed on trade lines was largely because the members of one trade attempted to settle disputes in other trades, instead of letting each trade settle its own disputes.

Trades unions are so named because they were intended, and rightly so, to do that for the tradesman which a mixed body could not do so well, and which is peculiar to the particular trade organized. Those things which are not peculiar to any particular trades have no right to be introduced into a trade union. Hence no political or religious problem has any business in a trade union, because these are questions which affect the whole body of citizens, whether they be tradesmen or not….We must separate the trade organization from the political or the religious organization to be in harmony with the law of progress and to invite the largest degree of success.

Because this is so does not preclude workingmen from taking political action, if they so choose, but they must organize for that especial purpose. And I question the policy of organizing for political action on class lines. If the lines between the three classes of society–workingmen, beggarmen, thieves–were clearly drawn and easily recognized by the mass of the people this doubt would not exist, but it requires no argument to prove that this is not yet so…